Thoughts on Cultural Mediation

I have never liked the term ‘cultural management’, for it implies control, supervision and some degrees of manipulation of cultural activities from above. Culture does not need to be managed.

With the increased complexity of operation in cultural presentation in our society, and a growing recognition of diversity in cultural appreciation, the selection, interpretation and presentation of the arts and culture require much more than managerial skills, especially at a time when institutional presentation and interpretation become a major channel for the public to understand and appreciate arts and culture. The term ‘cultural manager’ wrongly implies some kinds of self-aggrandizement.

The term ’cultural mediation’ comes from the sociology of arts, which socially sees the process of the arts includes the production (the training and practice of artist), mediation (the work of (critic, educator, curator and administrator) and consumption (audience and collector) as a train of production and consumption. Of course one can further elaborate on these three areas. For example, the makers of arts instrument and pigment could be regarded as part of the ‘production’ and some art teachers can be counted as part of the team as well.

The cultural mediator is important at a time when our society depends heavily on the mediating establishment for the public to understand and appreciate arts and culture. Depending on the roles expected, the cultural mediator usually select, interpret and present arts and culture to be perceived the public. Their importance in shaping the ways people look at arts and culture should not be underestimated. Because of his/her potential influences, a cultural mediator needs to be constantly self-reflective, stays humble but and always be critical of one’s decision. Subsequently engagement in critical reflection is essential to a cultural mediator.

When I first started teaching curatorship in 2004 at the Arts School of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, I had already adopted the term ‘cultural mediation’ instead of ‘cultural management’. Soon the Chinese University of Hong Kong has recruited me to look after its ‘ MA Programme in Cultural Management’. At one point I attempted to change the programme title from ‘cultural management’ to ‘cultural mediation’, but it was difficult to convince the senior management of the University of such a new, mostly unknown title. Deep inside I still wish that someday people could see the rationales behind such change. Hopefully, this new website could mark a significant change in the understanding of the true meaning of ‘Cultural Mediation’.

Oscar Ho

Oscar Ho (Director of CUHK’s M.A. in Cultural Management programme between 2006 and 2020) has advocated cultural mediation as a higher-order approach towards arts and cultural management. Cultural mediators are gatekeepers, who define, select, and present the arts professionally, and in so doing, expose the public and (specific) communities to the benefit of the arts. I am particularly interested in how cultural mediators position themselves in relation to the various stakeholders in the arts and cultural sector. The traditional stakeholder theory centres on the organization in its attempt to create win-win situations with both internal and external stakeholders. Cultural mediators, on the other hand, decentre themselves from the organization and navigate between the stakeholders. They base their decisions and actions in recognition that some stakeholders have more dominance over the others. Yet, every new decision/action leads to new issues and this means that cultural mediators must constantly shift their positions within their state of betweenness in response to the evolving power-relations between the stakeholders. To bridge the various stakeholders in meaningful ways, cultural mediators are required to have good grasps of the concepts of culture, cultural development and policies, as well as management competencies.  

Benny Lim